The telephone has grown legs: Mobile communication meets borders in Africa (Africa Today Seminar)

Seminar date: 
22 October 2009
Speaker(s): Prof. Mirjam de Bruijn

In the last ten years, Africa has increasingly been connected as a result of mobile communication. This is a fact that is often highlighted in reports by telecommunication companies, NGOs and the like, and increasingly in academic articles too. ICT development, especially the mobile phone, is presented as a miracle and a very positive development for Africa. Expectations are running high as people anticipate that when they are connected, development will follow. And the first indications of growing economies and better information flows can already be seen. One of the hopes or messages about the advantages of being connected is freedom, with an MTN (South African phone company) advertisement in Cameroon even using the words: 'the freedom to communicate'. This implies entry into another world, a message the laughing middle-class people on the billboards appear to be shouting to the people. At the same time, Africans, who often live difficult lives economically and socially, are trying to go to other countries or even continents for various reasons but are encountering problems crossing borders. The message of 'freedom' is being countered by a message of 'closed borders'. This presentation will investigate the contradiction between the freedom to communicate and limitations on movement, for which an understanding of the social and cultural appropriation of the mobile phone in Africa is indispensable. Examples from Cameroon, Mali, Sudan and Chad will illustrate the message.

Mirjam de Bruijn, anthropologist at the African Studies Centre, Leiden, has done fieldwork in Cameroon, Chad and Mali. Her new research programme is a comparative study of the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and ICT's interrelationship with agency, marginality and mobility patterns in Central and West Africa. She has been appointed Professor of Contemporary History and Anthropology of West and Central Africa at the Faculty of Arts at Leiden University in 2007. This seminar is based on her inaugural lecture "De telefoon heeft benen gekregen; Mobiele communicatie en sociale veranderingen in de marges van Afrika" (2008).